Detailed Synopsis of ‘King Lear’

Act One:  King Lear, an octogenarian monarch of pre-Christian England, has assembled all of his nobles to discuss the future rule of his kingdom after he relieves his aged self from its burdens.  Before he arrives with his daughters and their husbands, the Earls of Kent and Gloucester discuss how they think Lear will divide the kingdom.  Will it be equally divided?  If not, which son-in-law will be favoured with a better portion?

Edmund, who is with the two earls, now becomes the subject of discussion.  Gloucester tells Kent that Edmund is his illegitimate son, describing with lustful glee how much he enjoyed the night he slept with Edmund’s mother.  All Edmund can do is quietly, patiently listen to his father speak disrespectfully of his mother to Kent (one can safely assume Edmund’s had to put up with this kind of thing his whole life).

Lear and the others arrive.  Lear tells Gloucester to get the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, suitors to Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia.  Gloucester leaves to get them.  Lear announces his plan to retreat from the burdens of rule (though he’ll keep the title and dignity of king), and to give those responsibilities to his daughters and their husbands.  Whichever daughter loves him the most, and can thus express that love the best (see Quote 1 from my ‘Analysis of King Lear‘), will receive the best third of the kingdom.

Goneril, the eldest, speaks first, giving a flowery speech about how she loves her father more than words can say, more than any of the most basic human needs.  Flattered and contented, Lear gives one third of the kingdom to her and her husband, the Duke of Albany.

Nervous Cordelia doesn’t wish to flatter her father with phoney speeches of love just to gain land.  She’d rather “Love, and be silent.”

Regan, the middle-born daughter, is next to speak.  Like Goneril, Regan gives her father a honey-tongued speech of her ‘love’ for Lear, going so far as to say Goneril’s speech describes Regan’s very love of her father, though her own love surpasses Goneril’s by far.  Regan says nothing else gives her happiness but Lear’s love.

Again pleased, and not at all aware of how fake these speeches are, the vain king gives Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, their third of the kingdom. Though Cordelia doesn’t want to flatter the father she so dearly loves, she’s confident he’ll know the sincerity of her love well enough to overlook her laconic expression of it.

Unfortunately, she’s wrong, for he turns to her and, since she’s his favourite daughter, he expects an even more poetic speech from her, resulting in the best third of the kingdom.

She insists that she has “Nothing” to say; he warns her that the lack of a pretty speech will result in the lack of a third of the kingdom (see Quote 2 from my ‘Analysis’).  She says that she returns his love as is fitting a daughter, “no more nor less.”  She adds that when she marries, half of her love will go to her husband; she finds it odd that her married sisters give all their love to Lear.

Angered by Cordelia’s bluntness, the vain king suddenly disowns her.  Shocked, the Earl of Kent intervenes and passionately pleads for her, saying she loves Lear no less than Goneril or Regan, but rather doubtlessly loves him much more, given the phoniness of the elder sisters’ speeches.  Lear warns Kent not to continue, but Kent does, arguing that Lear’s actions are dangerously foolish, and Kent has always done everything he could to protect his king, faced every danger, and even now does so, risking the king’s displeasure, to protect him from his “hideous rashness.”

Lear can no longer endure Kent’s upbraidings and banishes him, giving him five days to leave England.  Kent leaves after wishing Cordelia well and hoping, though doubting, that Goneril’s and Regan’s treatment of Lear will match the words of their gushing speeches of love.

Gloucester enters with the King of France and Duke of Burgundy.  Lear offers Cordelia to them, but with no dowry, indicating only his “hate” for her as his reason.

The King of France is shocked to hear this change in Lear’s attitude, for the French king knows Cordelia was always Lear’s favourite daughter, and he wishes to know what monstrous thing she could possibly have done to deserve no dowry and such hate.  Cordelia says it is no sin not to flatter, and that, though she’s unhappy to have displeased her father, she’s glad she has no glib tongue.

Impressed with her virtue and honesty, valuing them over a lust for land and power, the French king would happily have the dowerless bride.  He asks Burgundy if he would have her, for “She is herself a dowry.”

Burgundy will have her only with the dowry, but Lear coldly says, “Nothing.”  Burgundy apologizes to Cordelia, regretting that she must lose a father and a husband in himself.  Knowing he wants only the dowry, she sees no loss in Burgundy’s ended suit.  He leaves with Lear.

The King of France accepts her as his queen, and before they leave, he’d have her say goodbye to her sisters.  She asks them to take good care of Lear, though she has every reason to believe they won’t.  When Goneril and Regan tell her not to prescribe to them their duty, we see the evil daughters’ true colours for the first time.  Cordelia and the French king leave; then Goneril and Regan discuss Lear.  They worry about how rashly he has disowned his favourite daughter, knowing it’s because his aged mind is going, and that he has little knowledge of his true self.  They plan to correspond regularly with each other, informing each other of any volatile changes in his mood that could be a danger to them.  They leave, as does everyone else.

Edmund is alone in Gloucester’s castle, expressing his resentment over custom’s unfair preference of legitimate children over those, like him, born out of wedlock.  Envying his legitimate brother Edgar, Edmund plans to cheat him out of his inheritance from their father.  Edmund holds a letter he’s forged, one imitating Edgar’s handwriting, one that purports to persuade Edmund to help Edgar kill their father and take all of his land and property.

Gloucester enters, and Edmund hides the forged letter, doing so in a way so as to attract Gloucester’s curiosity about its contents.  When Gloucester asks what the letter is, Edmund guiltily says, “Nothing,” and continues to seem reluctant to have his father read it, though of course he very much wants Gloucester to read it.

Gloucester insists on reading it, and Edmund sheepishly gives it to him, saying he hopes Edgar is merely testing Edmund’s loyalty to their father by writing it.  Gloucester is shocked when reading the contents, calling Edgar an “Abominable villain!”  He then hopes Edgar doesn’t really feel the way the letter makes him seem to feel.  Edmund pretends to hope the same thing.  They will note Edgar’s future words to see if they match his words in the letter.

Gloucester then mentions Kent’s banishment for the crime of “honesty”; he imagines an unfavourable astrological influence is to blame for everyone’s recent misfortunes.  Gloucester leaves, then Edmund speaks contemptuously of people’s foolish faith in astrology.

Edgar enters, and Edmund now speaks as though he himself believes in astrology.  Then he tells Edgar that their father is mad at him.  Edgar rightly assumes someone has done him wrong; Edmund, of course, agrees that there’s an unknown villain among them, and advises Edgar to avoid their father for his safety.  Edgar leaves, knowing he’ll stay in Edmund’s home; Edmund gleefully contemplates his imminent inheritance of Gloucester’s land.

A month later, and in Goneril’s castle, she complains to her servant Oswald about the noisy, troublesome hundred knights Lear has with him; she also tells Oswald to slacken in his service to Lear, as should the other servants.

Kent has shaved, changed into the clothes of a poor man, and will speak in a different accent to disguise himself while in Lear’s presence; thus he’ll be able to continue to serve his king.  He’ll call himself ‘Caius’.

Lear enters with his retinue of one hundred knights.  ‘Caius’ introduces himself to Lear and offers the king his services.  Lear accepts, and asks where his fool is; the Fool is so saddened over the disowning of Cordelia that he’s avoiding others’ company for the moment.  Oswald walks by, and Lear calls to him, but he ignores the king.  Furious, Lear has a knight fetch Oswald back, but the knight returns without Oswald, and sadly tells Lear that he doesn’t believe the king is any longer being given the ceremonial respect he deserves.

Oswald finally comes back, and Lear stops him angrily, asking him who Lear is; Oswald impudently says Lear is Goneril’s father, rather than the king, which angers Lear even more.  ‘Caius’ then trips Oswald and scolds him for his lack of deference.  Oswald runs off, and Lear pays ‘Caius’ for his service.

The Fool enters, offering his coxcomb to ‘Caius’ for following a foolish king.  The Fool continues to indulge in a series of witticisms, indicating how Lear is the real fool for giving all his power to Goneril and Regan, and for disowning Cordelia, the only daughter he can really trust.

Goneril enters, complaining to Lear about his noisy, riotous hundred knights.  Lear insists they’re well-behaved, but she would have half the number dismissed, leaving Lear with fifty to follow him.  Lear is enraged at this.  The Duke of Albany, having just entered the room, is at a loss as to what has angered Lear so.  Lear curses at Goneril, wishing either sterility on her, or for her to bear children as cursed with thanklessness as she is; then he leaves her for Regan’s castle.  ‘Caius’, the Fool, and Lear’s knights follow, ‘Caius’ to rush ahead with letters for Regan and Gloucester, preparing them for Lear’s arrival.

The Fool continues his witticisms with Lear, explaining that Lear shouldn’t have gotten old till he’d become wise.  Lear hopes he won’t go mad.

Act Two: In Gloucester’s castle, Edmund warns Edgar of their father’s wrath, and before Edgar runs away, he and Edmund act out a brief sword fight, Edmund yelling for help.  Alone, Edmund cuts his arm, and when Gloucester and his servants arrive, Edmund tells his father that Edgar has wounded him.  Gloucester tells his servants to chase after Edgar.

Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrive.  Gloucester expresses his grief at Edgar’s apparent disloyalty; Regan tells of how she doesn’t wish to receive Lear at her castle, having received letters from Goneril of Lear’s rage, something with which neither daughter sympathizes.

‘Caius’, having already arrived at Gloucester’s castle, sees Oswald come, and he speaks abusively to Oswald, knowing the knavish servant of Goneril is no friend to Lear.  ‘Caius’ then threatens physical violence against Oswald, who cries for help like the coward he is.

Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall arrive, asking what the matter is.  Oswald claims that ‘Caius’ is a ruffian whose life he’s spared out of respect for his age; ‘Caius’ says Oswald is a cowardly knave.  Having no sympathy for ‘Caius’, Cornwall asks what Oswald’s fault is, then says ‘Caius’ is the real knave, since he affects “a saucy roughness” and is proud of his bluntness.  Cornwall and Regan have him put in the stocks, his legs bound; ‘Caius’ says it’s a shocking thing to stock the king’s messenger, but Cornwall will gladly take responsibility for that.

Everyone leaves ‘Caius’ after Gloucester has apologized for Cornwall’s excessive punishment.  Alone, ‘Caius’ takes out a letter he’s received from Cordelia, one which says she’s raising the French army to invade England and restore Lear to the throne.  He falls asleep.

Having run a long time to escape his father’s pursuing servants, Edgar is in the open country, and in a soliloquy discusses his plan to remove his clothes and cover himself with mud.  He’ll pretend to be ‘poor Tom’, a mad Bedlam beggar, so no one will know his true identity.

Lear, the Fool, and the knights arrive at Gloucester’s castle, shocked to see ‘Caius’ in the stocks.  Lear can’t believe his daughter and son-in-law would dishonour him by stocking his messenger, but ‘Caius’ insists they have.

Lear has Gloucester fetch Regan and Cornwall, so they can explain themselves; Gloucester returns, saying they say they are tired from travelling long (a feeble excuse not to obey their king) and won’t come at the moment.  Enraged that he is being treated with the same lack of respect he received in Goneril’s castle, Lear demands that Gloucester go back and fetch them.  Embarrassed, Gloucester goes back to get them.

‘Caius’ is released from the stocks, and Lear is angry to know that Cornwall, having finally arrived with Regan, is indeed responsible for stocking ‘Caius’.  When Lear complains of Goneril’s attitude, Regan rationalizes her sister’s actions and asks Lear to return to her castle with only fifty knights.  When furious Lear says Goneril has his eternal curses, manipulative Regan tearfully complains that he’ll curse her when he’s again in a rash mood; but he reassures her that he never will.

Goneril arrives, to Lear’s dismay, and he is further chagrined to see Regan hold her sister’s hands, loyal to her rather than to him.  He says that Goneril is his only in the sense that a disease or a boil on the skin belongs to someone, out of unfortunate necessity, rather than out of love.

Goneril and Regan rationalize the reduction of knights to fifty, saying it would be almost impossible to provide for one hundred men, and that fifty should be more than sufficient.  Furthermore, Goneril’s and Regan’s servants should be sufficient to attend to Lear’s needs.  This upsets the king all the more.

Regan finds attending to even fifty knights to be too burdensome, and says she’ll reduce Lear’s number to twenty-five.  Since Goneril’s love seems to double Regan’s, he says he’ll return to her; but even Goneril won’t accept fifty knights now.  She and Regan wonder why he needs even twenty-five knights, or any at all!

Now without even one knight, Lear knows he has lost all power and authority, and in his feelings of having been betrayed, he’s even losing his sanity.  In a fury, he leaves the castle with ‘Caius’ and the Fool.

A rainstorm has begun outside, and Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall fear that Lear and his dismissed knights may storm the castle.  Gloucester is ordered to lock his castle doors, leaving the old king homeless in the storm at night.  Gloucester reluctantly does so.

Act Three: Out in the rainstorm, Kent tells a gentleman about the division between the Dukes of Albany and of Cornwall, and about the plan to take Lear to Dover, where the French army will be, to help settle the dispute.

In his madness, Lear rants and raves while being soaked in the rain and wind.  (See Quote 3 from my ‘Analysis’.)  He insists that he finds no fault with the inclement weather, since he gave nothing to it, as he gave Goneril and Regan, who should be grateful.  He “will be the pattern of all patience”; he will endure whatever harshness the wind and rain hits him with, for his daughters’ wickedness is far more insupportable.  (See Quote 4.)  ‘Caius’ and the Fool urge Lear to find shelter, but the mad king insists on braving the weather still.

In Gloucester’s castle, Gloucester tells Edmund of the plan to restore Lear to the throne, the French army having landed in Dover.  Though Gloucester assumes Edmund won’t tell Goneril and Regan about what they will consider treason, he of course will.

Still standing in the storm, Lear imagines the suffering of the homeless during this night; his heart aches to know that he, their king, has done too little for them.  To be in their wretched condition seems therapeutic to Lear, for he can truly pity them, and by becoming their equal, he knows justice is finally being done for them.

The Fool goes into a hovel where he and ‘Caius’ hope Lear will soon take shelter, but the Fool is frightened by a madman in there; both come out.  The madman is really Edgar, covered in mud and calling himself ‘poor Tom’.  He rants and raves wildly about all the devils he’s known and been possessed by.  Lear assumes ‘Tom’ is mad because his daughters have betrayed him, as Lear’s have him.  As ‘Tom’ continues ranting about devils (Quote 5), Lear is impressed, imagining the madman to be a “Noble philosopher.”

Gloucester has come out to them, and he leads them to an outhouse nearby his castle, where they can sleep for the night.

When Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s colluding with Lear and the French army, Gloucester is deemed a traitor.  Cornwall promises to make Edmund the next Earl of Gloucester; Edmund pretends to be sad about betraying his father.

In the outhouse, Lear gives an imaginary trial for Goneril and Regan.  Edgar, noting the real insanity of Lear, finds relative comfort in how his own sufferings aren’t as severe.

In Gloucester’s castle, when Goneril and Regan learn of Gloucester’s treason, the former suggests plucking out his eyes.  Goneril, Edmund, and Oswald leave, while Gloucester is searched for.

Gloucester, now apprehended, is brought in and pinioned to a chair by two or three servants.  He demands of Regan and Cornwall why he, the host of his castle, is being so mistreated by his guests.  Regan and Cornwall call him a traitor; Regan plucks his white beard contemptuously.  She and Cornwall ask where “the lunatic king” is being sent.

Gloucester tells of receiving a letter from “a neutral heart”, and of sending Lear to Dover.  When they angrily demand why to Dover, Gloucester says he’d not have them pluck out poor old Lear’s eyes.  Though he hopes to see the day of Lear’s revenge, Cornwall says he never will.

Cornwall puts out one of Gloucester’s eyes, leaving him with only one.  One of the servants fights with Cornwall, trying to stop him from putting out Gloucester’s other eye.  Cornwall is mortally wounded, but Regan takes a sword and kills the rebelling servant.  Cornwall goes back in pain to Gloucester and puts out his other eye.

In his agony, Gloucester calls out for Edmund, but Regan tells him that Edmund, having informed them of Gloucester’s treason, hates him.  Now Gloucester, like Lear, despairingly knows which of his offspring to trust, and which not to.  Regan has him thrown outside.  Cornwall dies of his wound, though Regan, secretly in love with Edmund, doesn’t care.

The servants, pitying Gloucester, will get flax and egg-whites to apply to his eyes.

Act Four: Outside, Edgar is horrified to see an old servant guiding blind Gloucester, who in his despair doesn’t want any help.  Gloucester has no way to go; having distrusted the wrong son, he stumbled when he saw.  If he could only have Edgar with him again, it would be as though he had eyes again.

The heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns to see his father in such a wretched condition.  Still all covered in mud, he’s still known to everyone as ‘poor Tom’, the mad beggar.  Gloucester imagines a similar cruelty inflicted on ‘Tom’ as on himself, a cruelty the gods inflict on all of us (Quote 6).  He tells the servant to find clothes for ‘Tom’, since he wants the madman to lead him from now on.  After all, only a madman would willingly lead Gloucester to a cliff in Dover, from which the suicidal blind man hopes to jump.

Before Albany’s palace, Oswald tells Goneril of how the Duke of Albany, her husband, is gladdened by the arrival of the French army, and saddened by her coming.  She assumes Albany acts this way out of cowardice and weakness.  Secretly in love with Edmund, as Regan is, Goneril gives him a love-token and a kiss.  Edmund leaves, and Albany enters; the latter has even more contempt for her than she has for him, knowing what she, Regan, and Cornwall have done to Lear.  He’s then horrified to learn that Gloucester’s been blinded, and though Albany must help fight against the French invaders, he hopes to avenge Gloucester for his eyes.

Kent and Lear have arrived at the French camp near Dover.  Kent speaks with a gentleman about the current situation, and about Cordelia, who is deeply distressed for her father.  They must prepare for the armies of Albany and Cornwall; Kent will take the gentleman to where Lear is.

Also in Dover, Cordelia has her men search for her mad father, whose head is crowned with weeds, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, etc.

Regan, aware of Goneril’s love of Edmund, and therefore jealous, tells Oswald to give Edmund a note she’s written.  She says that since she is now a widow, Edmund is more appropriate as a husband for her than for Goneril, who obviously doesn’t love her husband.  She also tells Oswald that if he should find Gloucester, he should kill him–he’ll be rewarded for such service.

Now also in Dover, Edgar leads Gloucester to what he says is a cliff; to look down at such a deep fall, Edgar says, is frightening.  Gloucester gives ‘poor Tom’ a jewel in a purse and tells him to leave.  Edgar steps back, whispering that his plan is to cure his father of his despair by pretending to indulge it.  Gloucester says some loving words for Edgar, then jumps.

The ‘cliff’ that Gloucester has fallen from is nothing of the sort; he’s done little more than fallen down.  Edgar, now pretending to be a man in the country (for that’s where they actually are), comes over to Gloucester and praises the gods for preserving him after such a long fall.  Gloucester is confused as to whether he’s actually fallen or not; Edgar says that a vile-looking devil at the top of the cliff was with Gloucester when he fell.  Edgar says the gods, in preserving Gloucester’s life, surely want the blind old man to continue living.

Edgar and Gloucester find mad King Lear, dressed in weeds.  Lear rants on and on about how Goneril and Regan lied in their professing of their love for him.

Gloucester, recognizing Lear’s voice, asks if he’s the king; Lear affirms this, as if it were obvious (Quote 7).  Lear continues ranting insanely, imagining he’s forgiving men for adultery, since illegitimate Edmund seemed better to Gloucester than legitimate Goneril and Regan were to Lear.  Besides, he needs soldiers, so he would have “copulation thrive”.  Edgar can only pity Lear’s “Reason in madness!”

A gentleman and attendants come to get Lear and take him to Cordelia; but first they have to chase after the mad king, for he suddenly runs away.

Oswald then finds Edgar and Gloucester, and brandishing a sword, prepares to kill the blind old man, who welcomes the thought of being put out of his misery.  Edgar fights Oswald and mortally wounds him.  Before Oswald dies, though, he tells Edgar of a letter Goneril has written for Edmund to read.  Edgar reads it, scowling from learning of her plot to kill Albany and marry Edmund.

In Cordelia’s tent, Lear has been bathed, changed into clean clothes, and tended to by doctors, who have used medicines to treat him.  He is sleeping.  Cordelia thanks Kent for his efforts to take care of her father; he doesn’t want her to reveal that he’s Kent until he deems the time fit to do so.  She continues to worry about her father.  The doctor would have Lear wake, since he’s been sleeping for a long time.

Lear wakes up and looks at her; he’s not sure, but he thinks she’s Cordelia.  She tearfully affirms this, while he assumes she hates him for disowning her; she, of course, can easily forgive his rash treatment of her at the beginning of the play.  He now knows that, underneath all the kingly pomp, he’s just a foolish old man.

Act Five: At the British camp near Dover, Goneril and Regan continue in their jealous rivalry over Edmund, bickering with each other, with him and Albany present.  The sisters and Edmund leave.  When Edgar, still in a poor man’s rags, has a chance to speak alone with Albany, he gives him Goneril’s incriminating letter.  Albany reads the letter, and is horrified at his wife’s treachery.  Edgar says a man will challenge Edmund to a duel after the war; he leaves Albany.

Edmund has promised himself to both Goneril and Regan.  Whichever sister he chooses, he knows the power he’ll acquire mustn’t be threatened by Lear or Cordelia, whom he plans to have executed after the war.

The war happens, and the French lose.  Edgar tells Gloucester they must leave, for Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.  Gloucester is still in bad thoughts, and his son must continue to try to comfort him.

Though Lear is Edmund’s prisoner, he’s content to have Cordelia’s love, and so he says that, in prison, they’ll “sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”  She asks if he wants to see Goneril and Regan; he says emphatically that he doesn’t, and guards take them away.  Edmund gives a captain a note, telling him to have the two prisoners executed.

Albany enters, demanding to have Lear and Cordelia under his protection.  Goneril and Regan continue in their bitter rivalry over Edmund, though Regan is ill.  (In an aside, Goneril admits to having poisoned Regan: see Quote 8.)  Regan, growing sicker, leaves.  Albany accuses Edmund of treason; if after a trumpet blows, and no man appears to challenge Edmund to a duel, Albany will.

The trumpet blows, and a masked man appears, accusing Edmund of disloyalty to his family and to his country.

The two men fight, and Edmund is mortally wounded.  Goneril is hysterical over dying Edmund.  Albany produces her incriminating letter, and she runs away to kill herself.

Dying, Edmund asks who the masked man is.  The mask comes off, and it’s Edgar, who then tells the story of how he took care of their blind father; then, when he finally revealed himself as Edgar, Gloucester died of a heart attack, being caught between extremes of joy and grief.

Edmund is actually moved to hear the story of his pitiful father.  A gentleman holding a bloody knife informs all that Goneril has killed herself with the knife, and Regan has died of the poisoning.  Kent appears, no longer as ‘Caius’, and asks where his king is.  Edmund tells them that Lear and Cordelia are to be executed; in spite of his nature, Edmund will do some good in reversing the order of execution.  A servant rushes off with Edmund’s sword as proof of the order’s reversal.  Edmund is borne away.

While Lear has been saved, it’s too late for Cordelia.  A wailing Lear enters carrying her lifeless body (Quote 9).  Lear would have a glass put by her mouth; if by chance the glass fogs up with her breath, she’ll still be living.  He killed the servant who hanged her.  Kent, Edgar, and Albany watch the king in horror and profound pity for his suffering.

A messenger enters, mentioning the death of Edmund.  Albany dismisses his death as a trifle in comparison to the tragedy he’s watching with Kent and Edgar.

Lear says his “fool is hanged”: is this the Fool, or his daughter (i.e., his ‘foal’)?  He asks why an animal should be allowed to live, but not Cordelia.  Then suddenly, Lear thinks he sees her lips moving; in a confusion of joy and grief similar to that of Gloucester, Lear dies of a heart attack.

Kent is amazed that Lear was able to endure for so long.  Albany imagines the rule of England will be divided between Edgar and Kent; but Kent, hearing the voice of Lear’s ghost, must kill himself to continue serving his king in the afterlife.

Edgar concludes the play by saying we must “Say what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

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Analysis of ‘King Lear’

King Lear is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1603 and 1606.  It is based on the legendary King Leir of Britain, an ancient pagan king who foolishly gives his power to his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, while banishing his good daughter Cordelia for not flattering him as her sisters have.  After Leir has lost everything due to the wickedness of her sisters, Cordelia–having married the King of France–raises the French army, invades England, and restores the throne to Leir.

Shakespeare replaced the legend’s happy ending with a heartbreakingly tragic one, shocking his audience, who were used to the original story.  Because his version was too sorrowful for most people at the time to bear, a happy ending was created by Nahum Tate later in the 17th century, after the Restoration; this version–in which Lear’s throne is restored (a fitting reference to Charles II’s own restoration), the Fool is omitted completely, and Cordelia lives and even marries Edgar–was used until the 19th century, when Shakespeare’s ending was reconsidered and restored.

Now, the tragic ending is not only preferred, but is considered, along with the rest of the play, a supreme artistic achievement, on a level with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or Michelangelo’s Pieta.  King Lear is a profound analysis of human suffering in all its forms, therefore justifying the tragic ending.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 50

2. “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 89

3. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow./You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drench’d out steeples, drown’d the cocks./You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunder-bolts,/Singe my white head.  And thou, all-shaking thunder,/Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world;/Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,/That makes ingrateful man.” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 1-9

4. “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning!” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 59-60

5. “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” –Edgar, as ‘poor Tom’, Act III, scene iv, line 139

6. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods–/They kill us for their sport.”  –Gloucester, Act IV, scene i, lines 37-38

7. “Ay, every inch a king.” –Lear, Act IV, scene vi, line 107

8. “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine.” –Goneril, on having poisoned Regan, Act V, scene iii, line 97

9. “Howl, howl, howl, howl!  O, you are men of stones!/Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/That heaven’s vault should crack.  She’s gone for ever./I know when one is dead and when one lives;/She’s dead as earth.  Lend me a looking-glass;/If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why, then she lives.” –Lear, Act V, scene iii, lines 257-263

As was mentioned above, this play is a profound exploration of human suffering in many forms. One form in particular is loss.  Lear loses everything in this play: by first giving up his kingdom to his two wicked daughters, foolishly thinking they love him, he loses the one hundred knights he reserved for himself.  Then he loses all his power and authority as king.  When he’s locked out of Gloucester’s castle during a stormy night, he’s lost the protection of shelter.  Reduced to the status of a homeless beggar, and realizing his foolishness in trusting evil Goneril and Regan, but not good Cordelia, Lear loses his sanity.

After he’s taken to Dover and restored to health by a doctor Cordelia’s provided, Lear temporarily regains his mental health, as well as gets her back, of course.  But after her army loses the war against that of Goneril and Regan, and she is hanged, Lear loses that so fragilely regained wellness of mind; and finally in his heartbreak over losing her forever, the old man loses his life with a heart attack.

He does gain one thing, though: self-knowledge.  Underneath the royal pomp, he’s just an old man…and a foolish one, at that.  His lack of self-understanding at the beginning of the play is noted by Goneril and Regan, who say he’s only “slenderly known himself.”  Later, Lear himself says, “Who am I, sir?” to impudent Oswald, and then to Goneril et al, “Does any here know me?  This is not Lear./Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?  Where are his eyes?/Either his notion weakens, or his discernings/Are lethargic.–Ha! waking? ‘Tis not so.–/Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

He isn’t the only one to suffer loss, though.  In a subplot that parallels the Lear story, the Earl of Gloucester is deceived by his evil, bastard son Edmund into believing that his good, legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting to kill him to gain his land.

Later, when Edmund betrays Gloucester for trying to help Lear against the machinations of Goneril, Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, they accuse him of treason, and Cornwall puts Gloucester’s eyes out.  Only then does he brokenheartedly realize which son is the good one, and which the bad.

Edgar, taking care of his blind father after he’s been thrown outside as Lear was, manages to dissuade Gloucester from committing suicide; but when Edgar reveals himself, Gloucester also has a heart attack, and loses his life.

With all of the loss and suffering, we come to another important theme in the play: nihilism.  As we have seen, Lear and Gloucester are reduced to nothing.  Other characters to die are, as we have seen, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund, though we may not mourn the loss of those last five so much. The kingdom of England all but falls to pieces by the end of the play, its fragile state to be restored by Edgar and the Duke of Albany.  The Earl of Kent will kill himself, since he senses the ghost of Lear requiring his continued services in the afterlife.  Words of negation, like ‘nothing’ and ‘never’, are stated many times throughout the play.  Then there is mad Lear’s shout, “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”

Sometimes when we compare levels of suffering, one can find comfort for oneself in pitying the greater suffering of another, as Edgar does in a soliloquy in a shelter Gloucester has provided for homeless Lear et al.  Edgar’s witnessing of Lear’s real madness in the storm, as opposed to Edgar’s feigned insanity in his role as ‘poor Tom’, makes him realize his persecution by his father isn’t so bad a situation to be in.  But the next day, when he sees his eyeless father driven to despair, the heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns.

One particularly striking feature of this tragedy is how it inhabits an upside-down world.  In this world, as in Macbeth, what is normally bad is good, and what is normally good is bad.  Those who speak bluntly or rudely (Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool) are good, and they are censured, punished, and even banished by the wicked Cornwall or foolish king.  Those who speak politely, who flatter, are evil, as Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are (see also Quote 5).  To be a traitor against England, as Gloucester is against the rule of Goneril and Regan, is good; to be loyal to their rule is evil, as Oswald is.  To invade England, as Cordelia’s French army does, is good.

Good sons and daughters are confused with evil ones, as we have seen.  Sons and daughters switch roles with parents, since Goneril and Regan are supposed to give shelter to retired Lear in their castles, while Cordelia actually takes care of him in Dover, and Edgar protects his blind father.  The Fool even notes the switch of parent/daughter roles, mentioning the foolish notion to Lear: “…e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when you gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches…” (Act I, scene iv, lines 170-173)

To disobey an edict of banishment is good, as Kent does in disguising himself as Caius and continuing to serve Lear, and Cordelia does in coming back to England with the French army.

A king is reduced to a beggar: in his homelessness in the rainstorm, he contemplates his meagre charity to other wretches in the same plight.  He says, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these?  O, I have ta’en /Too little care of this!  Take physic, pomp:/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the super flux to them,/And show the heavens more just.”

The feigned madness of ‘poor Tom’ seems like philosophy to deranged Lear.  Indeed, as Edgar is maniacally ranting, Lear wishes to continue listening to “this philosopher”, “this same learned Theban”, “Noble philosopher”, and “good Athenian”.

When Lear has his sanity, he foolishly and vainly believes Goneril’s and Regan’s empty words of flattery are truth; in his madness, he finally knows the wicked daughters’ true nature.  A sane Lear banishes Kent and disowns Cordelia: fatally foolish mistakes.  In his mania, he realizes they are his true friends, as is the blunt Fool, who, no real fool, speaks only witty wisdom throughout the play, telling Lear of his folly.

When Gloucester has his eyes, he is blind to Edmund’s slanders about Edgar; in his blindness, eyeless Gloucester knows which son is truly good, and which truly evil.

When Cordelia refuses to flatter her father, she is truly loving, for she won’t speak loving words just to gain land and power; Goneril and Regan gush with speeches of love, but think only of gaining his land.  Kent is similarly rude to his king, but loves him and cares for him so much, he’ll kill himself to serve his master’s ghost.

Illegitimate Edmund will gain his father’s land, but legitimate Edgar, forced to flee his home, is hounded by his father’s servants.

All of these examples of an upside-down world indicate its chaos, symbolized by the storm that occurs appropriately right in the middle of the play, when the king is made into a beggar.  Small wonder Akira Kurosawa called his Japanese movie version of King Lear by the name of Ran, meaning ‘chaos’, ‘disorder’.

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Bring It On

We all want a just society, and disaffection with the increasingly fascist nature of the world is reaching epidemic–nay, pandemic–proportions.  There have been demonstrations in the streets of America, Brazil, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Egypt, and elsewhere.  More and more people are getting fed up.  Some call our oppressors ‘The Illuminati’; others, like me, simply call them the ruling class.  Many of us want revolution, and find the usual political, ‘democratic’ solutions no longer valid.  We certainly don’t want things to get worse.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t include myself in that last sentence…at least not fully.  I’d hate to have to put up with even worse injustice, but at the same time, I’d also hate it if things got ‘comfortable’ again, and we all got used to the situation, and were no longer agitating.  The ruling class thrives on our apathy and laziness, and if we become content with a ‘tolerable’ level of oppression, they can continue getting away with their crimes against us.

Imagine a full economic recovery…until the next crisis, say, five or ten years later.  By that time, most of our present anger will have probably subsided, and we’ll have to build up the revolutionary spirit all over again.  The ruling class would love that.

Imagine we re-elected some kinder, moderately left-wing parties, and they brought back social programs for the poor, and everyone was happy again, except the conservatives, of course.  But after a decade or so of socialism, what if the leftist parties were to suffer scandals, and right-wing parties got re-elected?  And what if they were to take away those social programs, and the poor were right back to where they are now.  Again, the ruling class would win another ten years or so of no real threat to their power.

Now let’s imagine another possible scenario: the ruling class, instead of temporarily backing off, gets even more arrogant, and continues trampling on our rights, paying the cops extra well to give us the beatings even more ruthlessly when we try to protest; they ratchet up the internet surveillance to nab more dangerous agitators; wages continue to go down for workers; union activity is crushed; we’re increasingly poisoned by Monsanto ‘food’; more foreclosures increase the number of the homeless; and the mainstream media continue to lie and distract, even though most of us finally know they’re lying.  What then?

In our hopelessness, knowing we have nothing to lose, we, after careful planning, finally rise in worldwide revolution.  Part of me is scared at the thought, for indeed, it would be bloody, chaotic, and violent.  But part of me would love that courageous fight for liberation, too.  Before that can really happen, though, we anarchists have to deal with an annoying group who has bastardized the words ‘anarchist’, ‘libertarian’, and now, even, ‘exploitation’.

This problematical group, one that either fancies themselves as, or pretends to be, revolutionaries, call themselves ‘anarcho-capitalists’ (an-caps).  They euphemistically call capitalism the ‘free market’, imagining that consumer preference will magically steer businesses away from corruption by choosing not to buy products from exploitative companies, as if most consumers are motivated primarily by anything other than the desirability of the product, or are even aware of exploitation in its various forms.

Worse than that, many an-caps are trying to invalidate the Marxist idea that bosses exploit workers by keeping the surplus value (profits) instead of sharing it with workers.  An-caps, in what amounts to nothing more than a word game (and a clumsy one at that), try to turn the Marxist argument upside-down and claim that, when a business suffers a loss and workers continue to be paid the same wages, the workers must be exploiting the boss!  Since even an-caps know this to be a ridiculous assertion, the Marxist inverse, apparently, is equally absurd.

It shouldn’t be necessary to disprove this laughable an-cap idea, but what is not so laughable is how this disingenuous assertion is not only being taken seriously by many, it’s also being used to justify keeping workers’ wages low.  So I’ll debunk the argument now.

An-caps are essentially denying the hierarchical, power-based relationship between boss and worker, imagining instead that being hired to work for wages is ‘voluntary’ (an-caps love that word) and therefore fair.  Workers, apparently, are free to accept or reject any job offers they are given.

The problem with this argument is that workers, when ‘freely’ rejecting bad job offers, put themselves at risk of poverty or starvation, a problem that gets more pressing during harsh economic times.  In other words, workers have little choice, whereas bosses can freely choose from potentially many other people ‘willing’ to work for less pay, and bosses can obviously take advantage of, or exploit, this situation.  Workers’ ‘willingness’ to work for less comes from nothing other than their desperate need to survive, not from a lack of greed.  Greed is far more often the boss’s vice than it is the worker’s.

The boss, being the one with the power, has much more choice than the workers: he or she makes the decision as to how much to pay the workers–the workers have no such choice.  Accordingly, he pays them as little as he can get away with.  If the business succeeds or fails, he’s the one who makes the decisions as to the company’s direction, not his workers.  If the business suffers losses, his incompetence or bad luck is what’s at fault.  As for incompetence or laziness in his workers, he’s free to fire them.  They have no choice.

Profit or loss does not determine the direction for exploitation to go in: power does.  The closest workers have ever come to having power is when in strong unions; the strongest they ever get is when companies are collectivized, when everyone’s equal–even in such an optimal situation, individual workers still don’t have ascendancy over individual managers, because worker and manager are one and the same thing.

One cannot debunk the idea that the profit-making boss exploits workers by turning it upside-down and saying workers exploit the boss in a company that’s losing money, but not lowering wages.  Workers gain no financial advantage just because the boss isn’t making profits.  In such bad times, he isn’t the only one at risk of losing something; they are also at risk of losing something–their jobs.

When profits, especially big profits, are being made, that the boss is exploiting his workers–by continuing to pay them a paltry wage–is so obvious that the argument shouldn’t need to be spelled out to the an-cap.  It’s not that an-caps cannot see this reality (Why else would they want to preserve capitalism?  They either are bosses, or hope to be filthy-rich bosses in the future.); it’s that they are in deep denial.

All we need to see is the wealth and opulence super-successful businessmen enjoy–wearing Armani suits, buying jewelry and fur coats for their wives, driving in Porsches, etc.–and to know that this wealth comes from the sweat of their inadequately remunerated employees, to see the obvious exploitation.  Then we see the squalor so many of those workers live in, and the exploitation is even more obvious.

There is no parallel exploitation, nor is there a parallel non-exploitation, between profit-making and loss-suffering in companies.  When a company is suffering losses, it’s not like the workers are getting wages for nothing–they’re still working.  That an-caps would see paying workers, while not making profits, as ‘exploitation’ shows what worth capitalists see in their employees: we are nothing more than profit-making machines to them; we’re not even human.

Of course, an-caps will throw the rationalization at us that, since the boss puts up the money to start the business, the profits made are rightfully his.  But here’s a crucial question: where did the boss get the money to start the business?  Did he or she get a bank loan?  Did he get it from his rich Mom and Dad, the profits from their business having come from underpaying their employees?

In the case of the bank loan, the money owed can be reimbursed through the profits of the company, properly understood as money rightfully owned by the workers collectively, as a product of their labour; then the business can be seen as collectively owned, rather than privately so.  If there is to be compensation for the rich Mom’s and Dad’s money, the money should be repaid to the workers that Mom and Dad ripped off, not to Mom and Dad.

If it’s proven that the boss actually paid for the means of production from money he scrimped and saved, every cent being earned by the sweat of his own brow, and not somebody else’s, an appropriate portion of the profits can be given to him to reimburse him, then the business can be collectively owned; for any profits after that compensated amount should be considered collectively owned.  When we consider how difficult it is to scrounge up the money to start up a business without assistance from anyone, it is safe to assume that the great majority of businesses are initially financed through either bank loans or help from one’s wealthy family; this is why the poor usually stay poor, and the rich tend to stay where they are, too.

Put another way, the problem of poverty will be solved not through the poor working harder–that only helps the rich.  The problem will be solved in a meaningful way only through the abolition of private property.  Yet, if the capitalists and their friends in government still have a problem with this radical solution, then I say to them, “Bring it on!  Hit us with as much exploitation as you like.”  For one day, we workers will all get fed up with them, and losing our chains at last, we’ll gain the world.  The ruling class’s arrogance being more outrageous will only accelerate the inevitable revolution.